By Eric Stock
BLOOMINGTON - Heather Fort has coached her share of record-breaking swimmers at the Bloomington-Normal YMCA. But it's not the records that keep her going, it's the swimmers themselves.
For her efforts, Fort has been named the Illinois Swimming Age Group Coach of the Year. She coaches 9-to-14-year-olds in the YMCA's Waves program.
"I'm teaching these kids and building these kids, not just about swimming, but the people they can be," Fort said.
Fort said the biggest challenge in motivating grade schoolers to swim is to help them overcome the tendency to want to just be like their friends and get lost in the crowd.
"It's fear of failure, sometimes it's even afraid to succeed (that's holding them back). You know, what will their friends think of them if they do really well," Fort said.
She said success in swimming comes from making a commitment, being "blind to what's going on around you."
"When other kids are going to high school dances and football games, the swimmer is in the pool getting yardage in," Fort said.
Fort's pupils appreciate her dedication, even during the rare ocassions when they question their own commitment.
Grace Ariola, 12, who broke records in three events in the 11-12 age group this year, said there has been times she considered quitting, but her coach has helped her get back in the water.
"There's some practices where I get out and say 'This is it, I can't (continue)' and she pulls me aside and says 'No, you've done this before you can keep going and I get back in and I will do it," Ariola said.
Sidney Kennedy, 12, said Fort is always there for encouragement, which makes the practices easier to get through.
"I wouldn't say she's as much of a friend as she is a role model," Kennedy said.
It's safe to assume nearly all young swimmers have Olympic aspirations. The Waves' program has produced a number of swimmers, who have competed in the Olympic trials and Fort said that goal is well within reach for her swimmers by 2016.
"That's not even a doubt in my mind. They both have the talent and ability and work ethic to get there. I think the big part is just believing in themselves," Fort said.
The success of the Waves swimmers program is likely a factor in its growth. There are currently 122 swimmers participating across all grade levels.
YMCA Waves head coach Charles Yourd was honored as Illinois Swimming Coach of the Year in 2002.
Illinois Swimming also honored several swimmers under Fort's tutelage.
- Grace Ariola - broke girls records in 50 backstroke, 100 backstroke and 200 backstroke (11-12 age group)
- Melissa Pish, Sarah Leddick, Victoria Mata and Ariola - broke 400 girls' freestyle relay (11-12)
- Ariola, Summer Will, Maddison Newcomer and Pish - broke girls record in 400 medley relay (11-12)
- Yezan Alsadar - broke record in 400 boys individual medley (11-12)
Eric Stock can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.